If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

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Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 2.42.18 PMAn inside look at bowling and the people who like it

By Steve Guntli

This is the story of how I went bowling and drank beer with my friends.

Now, there are some who may decry the very premise of this article as me using valuable work hours to slack off. There may even be some cynics out there who, having read my previous Mount Baker Experience work, believe that I’m taking a mundane, everyday activity and inflating it to the level of being newsworthy, just so I wouldn’t have to hike up another steep hill. But I am a journalist, dedicated to getting to the truth of the matter, and like Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton and Nellie Bly before me, I am immersing myself in the world of my subjects to give an intimate, in-depth view of the secret world of casual bowlers.

Despite my overwhelming journalistic integrity, the pitch for the article still took some selling. Why would we, an outdoor magazine, want to focus on something as mundane as bowling? Everyone does it, everyone basically likes it and there’s very little new or controversial to say about the sport of rolling a heavy ball towards a row of pins. Even with my God-like gift for hyperbole, I could only summon so many interesting things to say about it. But once I inspected this particular gift horse and found its gums and teeth in impeccable condition, I decided to just roll with it (pun!). After all, I was an amateur bowling against people who were slightly better than me. Surely an underdog story would emerge.

I’m not a bowler. My experience with bowling is minimal at best, the product of a few birthday parties over the years. I have much more experience with the Wii Sports version of bowling, but it hardly recreates the experience. It’s like listening to a song on the radio compared to seeing it performed live.

The first challenge I faced was finding a suitable crew with whom to conduct my social Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 2.43.44 PMexperiment. After many scheduling snafus and rejected text messages, I had secured a diverse group with varying levels of experience: my long-suffering wife Nicole Vettese; my friend Joella Ortega, who next to me has the most minimal bowling experience; and Joella’s boyfriend, Nathan Dalla Santa, who has his own custom bowling ball and shoes.

Just the sight of Nathan’s bowling ball bag, which was clean and orderly but still scuffed with use, fueled a sudden and unexpected competitive spirit in me. He had instantly assumed the role of the smug expert just begging to be taken down by me, the scrappy underdog. Nathan, laid-back and effortlessly cool, was perfectly OK assuming that role, which diminished the dramatic odds a bit. I promised him that if we ran any photos, I would Photoshop in a few popped collars and fraternity letters onto his shirt to drive my point home.

The site of our great contest would be 20th Century Bowling, located in downtown Bellingham. The building should be next to any definitions of “bowling alley” in the dictionary or on the Internet. It is the default setting, everything you would associate with the sport: a confluence of shabby and shiny, rich with the smells of oil, grease and sweat, fueled by competition both casual and fierce. On any given night, you’ll see teenagers on dates, drunken middle-aged men picking fights and kids having birthday parties. It is a slice of Americana simultaneously familiar and bizarre.

Bowlers, like all athletes, are slaves to tradition and ritual, and one of the central facets of the casual-bowler lifestyle is alcohol consumption. In the spirit of gonzo journalism (which, you’ll recall, is totally what I was doing, not slacking off), I decided to partake, you know, just to see what all the fuss was about. We brought over a pitcher to split, and then another, and then another. I was starting to feel what bowlers refer to as “drunk,” but remarkably, it didn’t seem to be negatively affecting my game.

We played three games overall, which was good, because even my skill for overinflating unimportant events was feeling the strain during those first two games. In game one, Nathan dominated easily, with me coming in a distant second, Joella third and Nicole last. Game two was even worse; despite my cartoonish promises to give Nathan his come-uppance, I threw garbage all 10 frames, coming in dead last with a paltry 70-something. My hopes of framing myself as the underdog were dashed.

For the third game, however, things heated up. Maybe it was the alcohol coursing through our veins, or maybe we finally were feeling the competitive spirit I was so desperately hoping for. Whatever the reason, everyone brought their A-game, throwing strikes and spares in even competition with one another the entire game.

As the game stretched on, I kept pace as best as I could. I experimented with techniques for throwing consistent strikes. Some seemed to work (focusing intently on one single pin), others were a bust (I don’t know how to curve the ball). Eventually, my experimentation caught up with me, and a few gutterballs sealed my doom. I felt I’d failed both myself and the art of journalism (of which I was totally immersed in, remember).

But while I was obsessed with trying to write this underdog narrative for myself, a real one was taking shape: Nicole and Nathan were neck and neck for first place.

A bit of backstory: Nicole has been a little sensitive about her bowling performances in the past, and that sensitivity has not been assuaged by her marriage to a braying jackass who likes to make fun of her. Undeterred, though, she’s been putting in time, playing with coworkers in their Wednesday morning league and gradually building up her average. A win tonight, against a seasoned and talented player like Nathan, would be a big deal for her.

Resigning to our fate as also-rans, Joella and I settled back between frames to watch the unfolding drama and polish off the rest of the beer. Nathan was too laid back to show any outward indication that Nicole was making him nervous, but I promised to Photoshop oversized beads of sweat onto him, maybe even shaky cartoon lines around his knees. Nicole, despite the beer, had the eye of the tiger. She saw that her chance had come, and she wasn’t about to waste it.

Joella and I continued to bowl. The final frame crept up on me, mostly because I was drunk and I misread the screen. My final score on my final game: 111. Joella’s: 108. Whatever shook out between Nicole and Nathan, I was going to be in third place, a rather ignominious end to my high journalistic ambitions. But this story wasn’t about me anymore, and maybe it never was.

Nicole and Nathan continued to throw, and I, with heart in my throat, finished our third pitcher of beer.

I’d love to say the underdog triumphed, but sadly it wasn’t to be: Nathan ended up squeaking out a win by a paltry six points. He would go on to a lucrative bowling sponsorship, untold riches and international acclaim. But Nicole? She earned something much more valuable. She learned to believe in herself. Probably.

And what did I learn from this experience? I learned that I am willing to do anything for my craft, even if that means drinking beer and bowling with friends. Tune in next time, when I will attempt to binge-watch an entire season of “Breaking Bad.” There’s nothing I won’t do for the sake of journalism. x